May 26, 2009

The Anglican Consultative Council met in Jamaica for two weeks in early May. Most of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces were represented, as well as Cuba and Spain (dioceses not belonging to a province).

You will, by now, know of the headline-attracting decisions of this ACC meeting, but you will undoubtedly have heard much less about mission around the communion. I am convinced that the work of mission is where the Anglican Communion really "lives" – where it has its incarnate reality.

The various networks of the communion focus on mission work with youth, women, indigenous peoples, French speakers; in health care, education, environmental issues and the nascent Anglican development alliance. The Anglican Communion engages God's mission to heal this world in the incarnate realities of feeding, educating, housing and healing people, equipping them for ministry and pursuing reconciliation in contexts of war, division and discrimination. One Sunday, the members of the ACC dispersed for worship and conversation in parishes around Jamaica.

I visited a parish in Black River, about 100 miles west of Kingston. St. John's is one of the oldest congregations in Jamaica, dating from the mid-1600s. The town of Black River had electricity before New York! It is a sleepy old port, no longer used for cargo, but it still supports a local fishery. St. John's has been educating youngsters for centuries. There are two marble plaques at the front of the sanctuary that remember gifts of land to the parish in the early 1800s, to be used for the education of poor children. Two schools founded at that time continue to this day, and the parish began a major local high school in the early 1960s.

Excellent education for all is a pervasive mission of the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Yet I also heard from parishioners and clergy that claiming their status as Anglicans often is difficult. Some don't want to be publicly identified with what is perceived as the rich, colonial church – which was also the church of many former slave owners. We talked about how the mission identity might be shifted, particularly through work with the poorest, perhaps in adult literacy endeavors.

As ACC members shared their learnings from these mission conversations, we recognized that Jamaicans, like most Anglicans, struggle to include new generations, to be relevant to the spiritual concerns of people in secular cultures and to engage their members in serving those outside the church.

The ACC meeting is a further example of the challenge we face in making decisions as a communion. We come from vastly different cultures, speak different languages and value different things about Anglicanism. For example, the covenant text garnered broad support for its first three sections, but some feel the fourth section is inappropriately focused on discipline, while others see that as essential. We are not well-equipped to make structural decisions, even though we have deeply productive dialogue and partnerships around mission.

The last Lambeth Conference proceeded without resolutions, and the result was far deeper and richer because of the focus on conversation, dialogue and building relationships. This ACC meeting conducted some of its business in that way, but a great deal of time and energy was devoted to hearing reports and dealing with resolutions.

The members of the ACC arrive and are inundated with long and complex papers on a great variety of subjects – resolutions from the different networks, the recent draft of an Anglican covenant, the Windsor Continuation Group report, a 256-page book on ecumenical relations and many others – and are expected to make decisions after brief opportunities for small-group discussion.

The details of decision-making would surprise most Episcopalians. A small group develops material ahead of time and then offers it to the group with relatively little opportunity for deliberation or alteration. The resolutions presented for deliberation are vetted and edited by a resolutions committee.

The pace of work is leisurely, with 40 hours of formal work spread over 11 working days. The chair exercises a great deal of discretion in referring or declining to entertain resolutions; elections are not straightforward ballots for a single individual; discussion of any proposed amendment requires the support of 10 members; the president (the Archbishop of Canterbury) steps in fairly frequently to "steer"; and the rules are quite evidently not Robert's!

The contrasts with General Convention are significant: We publicize resolutions months ahead of time; deputies and bishops engage in diocesan discussions beforehand; legislative hearings provide extensive consideration of matters before they are brought to the floor for further debate and then decision. The pace of work is significantly different as well, with more than 80 hours of formal work spread over 11 working days, though the amount of time devoted to worship is similar.

Yet, even in the midst of our differences, we recognize a common passion for deep and transformative participation in God’s mission.